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Oscar-Winning Executive Director Jana Memel on the 2019 Awards

The 2018-2019 awards season has come to a wrap, following last week’s highly anticipated Academy Awards ceremony.

As a three-time Oscar-winning film producer and writer, Academy of Art’s Executive Director of the School of Acting, School of Motion Pictures & Television and School of Writing for Film, Television, & Digital Media is no stranger to the entertainment industry’s most esteemed award.

We wanted to learn more about Jana Sue Memel’s unique perspective on the world behind the lens, so we sat down with her to reflect on the past year in film.

What do you think are some of the trademarks of Oscar-winning films?

Another Oscar season has come and gone and it’s time to sit back and analyze what makes an Oscar-worthy film. Making a film is incredibly hard work.

Filmmakers put in at least a 14 hour work day when shooting, often six days a week. Prior to rolling camera it may have taken years of unpaid work to get someone to finance your film.

Unwilling to wait for financing, I made two films off of personal credit cards and had to spend years paying them back. I never regretted doing so, because I was telling a story I had to tell.

This season’s crop of nominated films was no different: they came from countries around the world, male and female writers and directors, straight and gay, government-supported, studio-financed, and paid for with credit cards. The one common denominator is the passion of the filmmaker for telling their story and affect their audiences.

Were there any themes or trends that stood out to you among this year’s contenders?

Leave No Trace by Debrah Granik
Leave No Trace by Debra Granik

If you noticed in the five nominated films there was a disturbing universal theme revolving around brutalized children, whether psychologically or physically.

Sadly, among the 10 finalists, there were only two that didn’t have some of that element in them. I have been an Academy member and voter since 1987 and this is the first time that I can remember where this theme appeared in so many films. What this says about our world is heartbreaking, clearly many people are living in despair and worry. 

What is also universal is that films that receive Oscar nominations are not about blowing things up, or body count. They are about people at a singular moment of change in their life, from Blackkklansman to Black Panther, from Star Is Born to Green Book to Roma, you can see the thread.

Were there any films this year that were not nominated which you feel should have been?

For me the best film of the year, the film that moved me the most was a very small film called Leave No Trace, a father and daughter story about a vet suffering from PTSD and his teenage daughter.

It’s about growing up and growing away, about letting go of the thing you love so that it can grow and thrive. It’s deeply personal and deeply political all at the same time, it makes you think and feel.

What are some things people might not know about the Oscar nomination process?

A still from Alfonso Cuaron's Roma
Alfonso Cuaron took home Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Foreign Language Film for Roma. Image courtesy of Netflix.

When I was running Chanticleer Films and submitting our movies for nomination, it was never clear to us what would get nominated from year to year, even though we received 11 nominations, four in one year alone.

Every branch of the Academy has its own nominating procedure. In the shorts and animation branch, a film has to screen for three days in a paid theatrical run (which you can arrange for through the Laemmle theaters), or win one of a list of film festivals.

Then the film can be submitted by the filmmakers to the branch. A volunteer committee views the films and narrows them down to 10. Then the 10 films are screened for the whole branch and are available for streaming on the Academy website.

You have to watch all 10 to vote to narrow the films down to the final five. This is the point where I start to participate. This year I can truthfully say all 10 were terrific.

How do awards affect filmmaking? Did they have an effect on you while making your short films?

No one I know sets out to make a film to win an Oscar or even be nominated for one.

Of course, we all dream of that happening, but the bigger dream is to get our movie made, to get our voice heard, and to create an emotional connection with the audience.

Winning awards, even being nominated for them is a fluke having to do with being at the right place at the right time, with the right budget. It’s like waiting for the stars to align, it has nothing to do with you as a filmmaker.

– Janet Sue Memel
Spike Lee makes an acceptance speech at the 2019 Oscars
Spike Lee accepts the Best Adapted Screenplay award for BlacKkKlansman
Image courtesy of LATimes

Is Spike Lee less of a director than Alfonso Cuaron? Is Blackklansman a lesser movie than Roma? The answer to both questions is No, and if the names were switched in order, the answer to the question would still be No, and experienced filmmakers know this.

What matters, what counts to all of us with a burning passion to share our stories, is that we are able to do so. And that when we do, we can affect, influence and enlighten our audience.

Perhaps, I say with no small amount of hubris, making the world just a little bit better than it was before we did.

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